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Planning for Gold

At business plan competitions across the country, judges sift through talented teams of presenters to find out who deserves the precious prizes--cash, services and VC exposure. Could your startup be the next to strike it rich?

This story appears in the November 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

There's an air of optimism about a business plan competition. Teams bustle along, rehearsing their business plan presentations before delivering them to illustrious judges who not only have business acumen, but are also often connected to large VC firms. Permeating every conversation is a we-can-do-it attitude. Business ideas can range from the highly technical biomedical industry to the more ethereal creative arts arena. Yes, the competition part of it can be nerve-wracking, and the judges are not what one would call an easy audience. Still, it's a great opportunity to win cash and prizes for your business and get pitch time in front of actual VCs--and it's also a huge learning experience from start to finish. It may very well be in the drinking water at a business plan competition, but the general attitude is this: No matter what happens, we'll build a business.

The good news is that these hotbeds of entrepreneurial inspiration are taking place at more venues across the country (and the world, in fact). A large percentage of business plan competitions are associated with university MBA programs, note experts, but a fair number are also produced by communities, open to anyone in the local area or to businesses of a certain type to encourage economic growth. "There are definitely more open competitions," says Mark Cannice, director of the University of San Francisco (USF) Entrepreneurship Program. "As the word spreads about allowing [people] the opportunity to develop a complete business concept and offer it to professional investors and executives, I think that experience has been so powerful and fruitful for so many...I think the demand for most universities to have [competitions] seems to be increasing as well."

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